Friday, October 21, 2011

I'd Have Written Sooner, But I Just Woke Up

I'm a few days late for my annual birthday essay, but I have an excellent excuse:

I forgot.

Not my actual birthday, of course. I have a wife and daughters that keep me well in mind of my actual birthday. They do this with a series of increasingly subtle hints as the day approaches.

"What would you like to do on your birthday, Dear?"

"Daddy, what's your favorite [insert random item here]?"

"Can we stay home while you and Momma celebrate your birthday?"

So remembering the day was not the problem.

Nor do I have a problem with my actual age. Chronologically I turned 53 this year, which is, I dunno, about 137.4 in programmer years. At least that's the way the newer crop of programmers make me feel. I just attended the annual Adobe MAX conference a few weeks ago, and the saddest sight in the world is an old programmer who tries to dress like the hip but nerdy youngsters for which these conferences are really created. I saw one complete with a full head of extremely gray hair in a long ponytail. He was wearing leather (pants and jacket) and a black tee shirt. There were probably piercings, too, but my highly-developed inner eyelid closed before the vision could cause any further damage.

I'm okay with my apparent lack of hipness, however. I've earned my gray hair, by golly, and I'm ready to accept the fact that when I move, it's not without first having checked to see if my back muscles are in complete agreement with my intended direction. This baby does not turn on a dime, y'know.

I'm also okay with my need for increased sleep. I've always been a comfortable sleeper, and have been known in past years to sleep even through the occasional six-point-something earthquake. (Sylmar, 1971. Barely registered on my subconscious.)

Lately I've found myself desperately needing a short nap in the afternoon, no matter how much sleep I get the night before. It generally hits me shortly after lunch, and I can feel my head getting heavier and heavier. Before I know it I startle myself awake with crick in my neck from having slept with my head at a weird angle.

No, I think my main concern this birthday is my shrinking brain mass. It used to be that we thought we were losing something like a million brain cells every year. It turns out, though, that what really happens is that we lose brain "mass," which is a polite way of saying our brains shrink over time. Again, I'm completely cool with this idea, but I sure wish I could control which portions of my brain engage in said shrinkage.

Victor Borge used to say, "There are three things I can never remember."

[pregnant pause]


I know what he meant now. My wife and I will be having a conversation, generally having to do with my going to the store to buy something or other. Immediately subsequent to this conversation, my brain will finally remind me that I've just been asked to go to the store. "Just one thing, Honey. What do you need me to get at the store?" To which she replies with that look that women have perfected over centuries of evolution that immediately communicates to the men that they are in Big Trouble because they Haven't Been Listening. "Did you not hear me just tell you what we need?" she will ask.

Ummmm. Apparently not.

Here's the part of my brain that I'd love to shrink: Whichever part it is that impels me to believe that I know what I'm doing.

Really. My Dad was a supremely confident man, at least as I remember him. When he spoke, it was generally with a voice of authority with which other people tended to agree. This may have been because Dad had a somewhat intimidating presence, which is akin to saying that the South Pole is somewhat frozen. But I always thought it was because Dad just always knew what he was talking about.

Then, however, I think back on some of Dad's homeowner projects when I was growing up. Building walls between rooms in our house, for example. Dad was convinced that we didn't need an open path between our living room and our dining room. Since we had a perfectly serviceable pathway to the kitchen, he decided to wall up the dining room and turn it, briefly, into a "den." That poor den suffered through quite a number of Dad's homeowner projects over the years, until ultimately he tore out everything he'd ever built except for the wall, and turned it back into a dining room.

Likewise our backyard gardens. Dad was the world's greatest armchair gardener. He had a long-standing subscription to "Organic Gardening" magazine and even took classes at the local junior college on the topic. These resources were, of course, applied directly to his children, whom he employed as migrant farm workers. I don't mean to say that he didn't get out there himself and work; I'm just saying that I always felt like I was getting more than my fair share of garden-related assignments.

These two examples, however, illustrate perfectly this idea that, as an adult, I always feel that I not only know what I'm doing, but I'm not generally happy when a) not everyone else seems to think so, and b) my ideas frequently seem to turn out differently from the way I originally planned them.

That part of my brain I would never miss. But it seems to be the only part of my brain that not only isn't shrinking, but seems to be expanding. Probably sucking up mass from other parts of my brain, like my memory, or my attention to detai...

What was I talking about?

Nuts. Now I can't remember. Guess I'm done with this one, then.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Statistically Speaking

Just based on my own observations with respect to any argument related to Global Warming or any data quoted by the current Administration:

Statistics are the artful manipulation of raw data in such manner that the end results are entirely disconnected from that raw data.

Or so it seems to me.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Raising the Bar for "Dysfunctional"

Because, at the end of the day, we're all just one big happy family, right?

If they qualify as a "family," then they have serious in-breeding problems.

Just sayin'.

(H/T: Michelle Malkin)

Monday, August 22, 2011

It Isn't Supposed to Be Easy

A few thoughts on homeschooling, from a perspective of having done this for awhile now:

1. It's not for everyone.

We have met many, many homeschooling families over the years. Often it's just a chance meeting at a large gathering, such as when Sea World hosts a "homeschool" event. There you get to see thousands of families in split-second tableaux. Such encounters always have me wondering why many of these families choose to homeschool. Is it rage against the machine? A sincere desire to instill family values (like — I swear I saw this — matching tattoos on their teenagers)? Shouldn't they look happier if they're pursuing a family dream?

Just watching parents dealing with their kids in public makes me ask one other, even more troubling question: Are there parents who school their kids at home out of fear that some authority figure is going to sic child welfare services on them because they are obviously lousy parents? Of course, perhaps we were just catching them on a bad day...

2. The decision of whether to homeschool is never an easy one, even if it was never really a question at all.

My sweetheart and I had decided to homeschool before we ever brought a child into the world. The fact that Mrs. Woody had been a public school teacher in her past life only cemented the obvious: the state of public education was changing at an alarming rate, and not in a good way. Reading between the lines of various reports and debates throughout the nation even fifteen or sixteen years ago, it was clear that if we wanted our children to learn solid fact, rather than socialized ephemera, we needed to do it ourselves. Besides, if we want our children to learn something other than solid fact, I much prefer it be based on a gospel I can support, rather than the gospel of the micro-managing labor unions that currently control public education today.

These reasons alone, however, were not sufficient to make our final decision to homeschool our daughters. They were the "why" of the equation. The "why" is hardly ever in doubt; it is the "how" that makes homeschooling such a difficult decision. "How" are we going to teach our daughters everything they need to know, and can we possibly do so without interference from (or even notice of) state and local authorities. Those are questions that must be researched carefully and thoroughly before committing yourselves and your children to such a venture.

When we talk to perspective homeschoolers, the questions we get are never "why." They are "how." And they are legion.

3. Homeschooling is a noble act, no matter what your friends, family, neighbors, and especially the government may think.

This of course assumes that you are meant to homeschool. Interestingly, living in California is actually quite a blessing when it comes to homeschooling. I will tell you this, however: the level of potential interference from an administrative perspective increases exponentially if you live in a part of the state that is considered "liberal" in its base politics. We have had the good fortune of living in two counties that are traditionally considered "conservative" in their base. School districts in these counties largely shrug their collective shoulders where homeschoolers are concerned, and some even attempt to open their doors and allow homeschoolers access to their resources.

At a state level, California makes it possible to homeschool largely under the radar. Legally there are no real obstacles to homeschooling in this state. Challenges are usually the result of some moral diarrhea being suffered by a local authority who simply cannot accept that public education is anything less than spectacularly wonderful for every child. We even had one candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction in our last election who could not for the life of him imagine any campus in California not being perfectly "safe" for our children. This candidate had obviously never visited any campus anywhere in East or South Central Los Angeles.

I know there are families in California who have had to defend themselves legally, but by rights (and by law) they should never have been prosecuted in the first place.

4. Homeschooling is fun! Eventually!

Make no mistake: homeschool is hard work. It requires hours of planning; constant modification based on what works or doesn't work; daily fine-tuning to make sure you're understanding all the nuances that your children are experiencing as they grow (and learn!). In the early stages, frustration mounts whenever an attempted curriculum fails to do the job. This isn't working! What am I doing wrong? (Legal notice: frustrations may include, but are not limited to, curriculum, lack of internet access on any particular day, the attitudes of children or spouse, interference from "concerned" but "well-meaning" extended family, Mondays, Fridays, "that time of the month," full moons, or the latest ant infestation in your kitchen.)

It isn't necessarily you. Even if it is, you may simply need to rethink things. If one curriculum isn't working, there's bound to be one that will. Just check to make sure the problem isn't the way in which the curriculum was applied. Some people need to have every aspect of their school day scheduled out to the nth degree. Others abhor scheduling of any kind and just let things happen as they will. Either way, expect to be in a state of constant change until both you and your student(s) hit your stride. Finding that rhythm that works in most cases is the hardest thing you'll ever do. Once you've accomplished that and found the materials that properly support that rhythm, the rest is easy.

And fun.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Great Communication (or: Great. Communication.)

Instant messaging has its place, but I'm a traditionalist. In today's terms, probably even a fundamentalist. My problem is that I insist on complete sentences in my business communications.

Typical IM exchange between me and a co-worker:
Me: Are you there?

Co-worker: y

Me: When you say "y," do you mean "yes" or "why?"

Co-worker: wut
Co-worker: y do u ask

Me: See? In that last sentence, "y" clearly meant "why," but without context your first sentence could have meant "yes I am here, thanks for asking," or "why do you need to know? Am I late for a meeting?"

Co-worker: ?

Me: Ah! So you DO know what a question mark is!

Co-worker: go away
I blame my mother. She has always been a strong typist and I decided at some point early in life that I wished to master the realm of QWERTY. I remember sitting at our small portable typewriter upstairs carefully transcribing my collection of Bill Cosby records. By the time I took typing as a class in junior high, I was already typing around 35 words per minute. I think in my prime I got that all the way up to around 70 or 75. Fast enough to prefer typing to all other forms of writing, but not quite fast enough to be an office admin.

Then Dad bought our first home computer. I was still on my mission at the time, but it didn't take me long to immerse myself in the world of microcomputing and begin learning a third language: BASIC. (Fourth, actually, if I count both K'iche' and Spanish as my second and third languages. Unfortunately, I've all but lost the Mayan dialects now.)

BASIC was fun because I had to master a whole new slate of keys to which I'd never paid attention on the old typewriters. Things like the colon, for which I could never find a use in normal correspondence, but which are found in nearly every line of BASIC code in any given application. Likewise the @ symbol. I can't even remember covering that silly thing in typing class, yet have been using it faithfully since 1980. Almost lost my skills when migrating from the old TRS-80 keyboards to today's standard PC keyboards, though. The Trash-80's character keys were in different positions, so I had to re-teach myself how to type them when I received my first XT Boat Anchor (640K RAM! Two — count 'em — TWO 5-1/4 inch floppies!)

Even then, however, I refused to give up on traditional English when writing memos, even as a lowly expediter working in a factory.

(For those who really know me, this is especially ironic. My family nickname is "the Great Communicator," because I pretty much never communicate with anyone who is not in the immediate room with me. I have kids living in Minnesota who are now convinced that I am about as real as Santa Claus because they only hear from me once a year, and about all I say is, quote, "Ho, ho, ho," as in, "You need money? Ho, ho, ho.")

(Secondary sidebar: Do you have any idea how ludicrously difficult it is to frame a formal letter in the old DOS version of Lotus 1-2-3? Yet that was what we tended to use because we weren't allowed an actual word processing application for a few years. Then we printed them out on our dot-matrix printers, some of which forced everything into ALL CAPS WHETHER YOU TYPED THEM THAT WAY OR NOT. The result was that our business communications, however well formed, tended to look like we'd printed them using $1.99 rubber stamp kits such as you'd buy at your local supermarket to get your kids out of your hair on rainy afternoons. Weren't those days fun?)

Now, of course, we have a whole new generation of college-educated kids hitting the workplace (assuming they won the mud-pit wrestling match at the jobs fair) with really fascinating degrees in business and communications. Except that they can't form a complete sentence to save their souls. These days it's not at all uncommon to receive requests like this one:

Someone said to me that you are the guru for UCA datas and I need a report but I need it last quarter and first quarter and you can have it for me by tomorrow? Early? Thx
You guessed it: another MBA from Pepperdine just hit the rolls. I'll probably be working for this person in another six months or so.

I may be poor, but I'm a terrific communicator.

Unless you're related to me.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

It's Too Soon!

Next year is Election Year(!), and a presidential election to boot. And while 2012 cannot possibly get here fast enough for most Republicans, I have to say it's far too soon to have to deal with sharks in the water already.

The odd thing is, we have good reason to hurry. The ruinous health care fiasco foisted on us by an over-zealous Congress and President last year continues to rankle. The list of waivers is growing nearly as fast as the debt ceiling, with no end in sight. Even with Republicans in control of the House, no one seems quite ready to engage in more than token spending reductions at this point. Heck, I may actually have to file an extension on taxes this year just because some rule changes are harder to figure out than others.

But I am definitely NOT ready to have to listen to all the posturing, finger-pointing, mud-slinging, and other forms of lying that will accompany either the candidates themselves, or the rabid liberal press who will insist on pounding us with their social justice agenda.

Time once again to buy more stock in whomever makes Motrin®.

Besides all that, I am nowhere near ready to write up two more Curmudgeon's Guides for Young Conservative Voters next year. And heaven only knows when the primary election for California will be. We were so concerned with getting "out front" last time around that California Republican officials very likely torpedoed any chance we had of gaining even one significant state-wide office, much less making any sort of difference at the national level.

(NOTE TO CALIFORNIA REPUBLICAN PARTY LEADERS: Next time you throw support to a candidate for Governor or United States Senate, let's get out in front of the whole alien employee situation, hm? It's embarrassing to live in the most populous state in the country, yet one that is incapable of putting forward even one serious contender for state or national office in the last twenty years. Let's work on that one, 'kay, guys? Let's also make sure they have solid conservative creds this time. That last bunch were RINOs to the core!)

Already wishing it were 2013.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

New Year's Resolution?

So I have this talent. No, not this talent. This talent tends to annoy people who lean a certain direction politically and can't understand why we aren't falling that direction right along with them. No, this is in reference to my other talent, which only annoys people who don't want to believe that anything their favorite pop or rock star is performing was already written two hundred years ago by some dead composer.

Most of my family possess this talent to one degree or another. We were blessed with two hugely talented parents, both of whom are (or were... it's awfully hard to write this stuff when one of them is living and the other one is, oh, terra-challenged) dedicated to the craft. I certainly won't deny that most of what I know is what they taught me over the years, while the rest is attributed to whatever I could glean from working with various conductors beginning in high school.

Indeed, part of the reason I'm a fairly decent sight-reader today has more to do with Dad than perhaps anyone else. Dad was a tremendous fan of the march. He'd served in both the Army and Air Force and was in the band both times. He had a dance band at one point (in a rare glimpse of his past, he even admitted to once having owned a zoot suit, of all things!), and was constantly seen with his pad working on some composition or other. The problem was that his piano skills were not quite in keeping with the rest of his talent (although his favorite calling - ever - was Primary Pianist). Hence he would drag Mom out of whatever project she was working and make her play through his score.

Now, Mom is an incredible accompanist. She was the ward organist from my earliest memory until many years after I moved away and started my own family. She could play almost anything, but Dad stumped her. Frequently. Part of it was Dad's notation style. If you've ever cracked open a Schirmer edition of "Messiah" and seen that reproduction of Handel's original manuscript, Dad's tended to look a lot like that, only not as neat. He didn't write notes so much as hash marks that often weren't distinguishable from ledger lines. He gave new meaning to the term "accidentals." I personally struggled to determine whether I was looking at a sharp or a natural. Flats were easier, but looked like anemic h's.

The other part of our common struggle was Dad's compositional style. He tended toward an avant garde style that never quite resonated with me. He would have been a fabulous film composer, which was one of those not-so-secret dreams he had for his retiring years. But I am not and never was a film studio musician, and I struggled with Dad's choral stuff. However, by the time I graduated high school I could by golly read his music. And once you could read Dad's compositions, the rest wasn't all that difficult.

What I struggle with today is my own rather serious lack of musical knowledge. I go through this personal inventory of skills and knowledge every once in awhile, and music sits at the top of a very long list of things I should know more about than I do. I am the poster child for under-acheiving musicians.

Talent is a wonderful thing, but in a character like mine it has the effect of dampening my desire or need to do anything about it. Music as a lifestyle came naturally to me, but I am a lazy cuss and have never applied this talent toward any practical end.

I started two instruments and never finished either one of them. Singing was easier because I didn't have to coordinate my voice with anything my fingers were trying to do at the moment. Violins and pianos are like that; demanding mistresses that need you to pay attention to too many things all at once in order to keep them happy. The voice is a lower-maintenance relationship. Keep it healthy, treat it with respect and it will continue to perform for you. Oh, sure, it requires technique and following of rules, but it's all self-contained. Don't even have to worry about carrying it around in a case, or keeping it dusted and polished.

Which brings me to my resolution for this year. It's a relatively simple one, but one I've needed to make for a long time now. I need to learn more about this talent I have but for which my skill set is seriously lacking. I need to begin a course of study (probably informal... I still have a day job) that will enhance my theoretical knowledge of the music I love so much. Let's face it: music is my eternal calling. I may prefer teaching callings, but any given ward has relatively few people who can serve as choir directors. I can do the calling, but it would be nice to know what I'm doing.

Although, for people of a certain political persuasion, that never seems to stop them.